Civil Liberties

Looking for Loughners

Would laxer commitment rules make us safer?


After the recent shooting rampage in Tucson, the psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said such crimes are "the inevitable outcome of five decades of failed mental-health policies." Time blogger Joe Klein regretted that "we no longer lock up the mentally ill." Syndicated columnist Mona Charen faulted "laws that require proof of dangerousness before a person can be involuntarily subjected to treatment."

These and other critics argue that innocent people could be saved if it were easier to imprison lunatics like Jared Lee Loughner before they commit crimes. But the champions of involuntary psychiatric treatment rarely consider the innocent people who would be stripped of their freedom under a legal regime that allowed the government to lock up potential Loughners based on little more than their wacky beliefs and off-putting behavior.

Blogging at The New Republic's website last week, University of Maryland political scientist William Galston argued that "a delusional loss of contact with reality" should be enough to justify involuntary treatment. He said "those who acquire credible evidence of an individual's mental disturbance"—including "parents, school authorities, and other involved parties"—"should be required to report it to both law enforcement authorities and the courts," under penalties "tough enough to ensure compliance."

In short, Galston wants a system that compels Americans to keep a close eye on their odd relatives, friends, neighbors, students, and employees, reporting them to the authorities when their strange ideas escalate into "a delusional loss of contact with reality." That distinction may prove hard to draw.

Many of the things Loughner said on subjects such as grammar, mathematics, lucid dreaming, and monetary policy were inscrutable or demonstrably false. But if that were enough to signal a break with reality justifying involuntary commitment, our mental hospitals would be overrun.

The fuzzy line between Loughner's opinions and his "mental disturbance" is apparent in a remark one of his friends made to The New York Times: "He was a nihilist and loves causing chaos, and that is probably why he did the shooting, along with the fact he was sick in the head." Was Loughner's nihilism a symptom of his illness, a cause of it, or an independent motivation for his crime?

As difficult as such matters are to disentangle after the fact, it is even harder to say ahead of time which deluded malcontents will become cold-blooded murderers. In retrospect, every strange thing Loughner did or said marked him as a dangerous madman, including not just overtly crazy stuff like his video linking Pima Community College to genocide but borderline behavior such as singing to himself, talking out of turn, pestering teachers about grades, smiling and laughing inappropriately, and making weird comments in class. But it is not hard to see why administrators and police officers might have considered him a nuisance rather than a menace.

Even among people diagnosed as schizophrenics, Torrey says, only 10 percent become violent. So assuming that Loughner qualifies for that label, a policy of detaining people with similar symptoms would sweep up nine harmless individuals for each future criminal.

Although they are routinely called upon to say whether people pose a danger to themselves or others, psychiatrists are notoriously bad at it. "Over thirty years of commentary, judicial opinion, and scientific review argue that predictions of danger lack scientific rigor," notes University of Georgia law professor Alexander Scherr in a 2003 Hastings Law Journal article. "Scientific studies indicate that some predictions do little better than chance or lay speculation, and even the best predictions leave substantial room for error about individual cases. The sharpest critique finds that mental health professionals perform no better than chance at predicting violence, and perhaps perform even worse."

The current system of involuntary commitment rests on predictions of dangerousness that are appallingly inaccurate. Abolishing the requirement of dangerousness would avoid that embarrassment at the cost of imprisoning even more people who pose no threat to others.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  2. Who is that in the picture?

    1. Pretty sure that’s Jacob.

      1. You purposely typed Track to make me think of the other child, which makes me the horrible person and not you.

        Well done.

        1. Ah, go easy on yourself. I’m guessing most here have entertained the occasional lascivious thought about Bristol.

          1. I’d hit it

    2. That’s me as a young lad.

  3. At least half the national blog commentariat would have to be rounded up under a regime of involuntary psychiatric evaluation.

    1. How would they round libertarians up? Gathering them together under false pretenses- the Leo prize-winner sting? I knew that free ticket to the Reason cruise was a too good to be true.

      1. Rectal has been out-blog-whored and punked by Anon-bot, and both before 08:00.

        ‘Gonna be a good day, Tater.

  4. “…the champions of involuntary psychiatric treatment rarely consider the innocent people who would be stripped of their freedom under a legal regime that allowed the government to lock up potential Loughners based on little more than their wacky beliefs and off-putting behavior.”

    I’d argue that these are the exact people the supporters of shit like this want to lock up. It’s just that few of them will actually admit it.

    Can’t startle the sheep. (Oh and for all of those who don’t like to read or hear people referred to as sheep, cry me a fucking river.)

    1. We’re used to it. Bored with the metaphor, actually.

      1. What about all of this regular sex you seem to be getting lately? How are you feeling about that?

        1. You were great. Still waiting for that dinner you promised.

          1. Is Bee Tagger going to take you to the Out-BAAAAAAHHH-ck?

            1. I hear from some sheep that suit-happy lawyers who may or may not engage in romantic liaisons with them are cheap asses, and only spring for M-aaaaaaaaah! -cDonalds

              1. Know why you haven’t heard from me lately?

                I’ve been on the lamb.

            2. Don’t listen to him. He’s just trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

          2. I said grass…not dinner!

    2. Let’s start with the crazies that voted for Obama.

  5. In this increasingly complex and technology-driven world, anyone without a recent bachelor’s degree in a hard science exhibits “a delusional loss of contact with reality”.

  6. I love the calls for guns to be banned for those deemed unfit by the school system. School administrators are the last people I would offer any more power.

    1. ^^^ These are the people who ban touch football at recess because someone might get “knocked over” or “fall down”. Then they offer us “solutions” to the “obesity epidemic” among schoolchildren. Fucking idiots…

      1. I always liked co-ed touch football.

        1. That’s cuz yer a chubby chaser.

  7. Clearly, the Pre-Crime Groups need to do a better job looking into the future to identify the criminals BEFORE they commit the crimes. That’s the only way we can be SURE that we’ll prevent future Tucsons and Columbines.

    It’s for the children….

  8. It doesn’t mean it can’t be predicted, just that experts are wrong:…..rm_expert/

    (of course, any changes we make should be well after the emotional moment is over, so it’s not an overreaction to recent events).

    1. My simple SPR predicts Loughner will not be dangerous.

  9. It ocurs to me that all of the proposed policies to prevent things like the Loughner shootings from happening again (more gun control, involuntary commitment, turning every American into an agent of the state surveillance system*) are worse than the problem (a congresscitter getting shot by a lunatic every 30 years or so).

    * He [University of Maryland political scientist William Galston**] said “those who acquire credible evidence of an individual’s mental disturbance”?including “parents, school authorities, and other involved parties”?”should be required to report it to both law enforcement authorities and the courts,” under penalties “tough enough to ensure compliance.”

    ** Does any degree say “unqualified to formulate public policy” louder than one in political science?

    1. Women’s Studies?

    2. Ethnic studies.

      Galston would turn this country into East Germany.

    3. Where’s the problem?

  10. Humanities. Liberal Arts.

  11. I think we would all be much safe if everyone carried guns like they carry cellphones.

    When was the last time a tragedy occured at a gun show, gun range or NRA convention?

    I hope Giffords doesn’t become an anti-gunner after this experience. She already has a D score from the NRA, I hope she can get that back to a C or B.

    1. I can see it now. Mans Blows Out Brains Answering His Gun.

      1. That may be lots of things, but tragedy it ain’t.

    2. actually, a tragedy DID recently occur at a gun show. kid got killed trying out an uzi. all over the media. organizer of gun show just found not guilty btw. imo, it was clearly the father’s fault, and the gun show promoter TOLD HIM he shouldn’t let an 8 yr old shoot the uzi due to its recoil, etc.

      i 100% support gun rights, etc. but tragedies CAN and DO occasionally happen almost anywhere. for example, even gun stores get robbed. it’s just very very very very rare.

    3. Arizona has some of the least imposing gun laws in the US, yet has one of the highest gun death rates. Just a coincidence, do you think?…..worst.html

      Also, with Arizona being so liberal with its gun laws, why didn’t any of these gun totin’ citizens stop Laughner before he shot so many people?

  12. There’s no more nurturing environment for mild mental illness than an over-filled institution full of crazy people.

  13. You can only make the rules so lax. See e.g. Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715 (1972) (the indefinite commitment of an incompetent defendant violates due process and equal protection).

  14. Wait a minute. How about not locking up the nutbars but just making it harder for them to get their hands on gns and amo? We don;t let blind peolle get driver’s licences. We do let the deranged and moronic have web pages, but that’s another story.

    1. “We do let the deranged and moronic have web pages, but that’s another story.” And vote for a sack of shit with big ears!

    2. The tag on Max’s straightjacket says “Keep away from computers”

    3. The tag on Max’s straightjacket says “Keep away from computers”

    4. Blindness is an objectively measurable, permanent physical condition. Mental illness is a subjective, fluid psychological condition. Furthermore, the definition of “mental illness” has historically been used as a political tool by enemies of liberty.

  15. There is an inherent risk in anything you do, including stepping outside your home. Even staying inside your home for any amount of time carries inherent risks. So if the object of government becomes the lessening/elimination of risk, then there’s nowhere that the line can be drawn, because inherent risk is everywhere.

    Also, an individual with outwardly normal behavior is equally as capable of mass murder (and other forms of violence) as a bizarrely-behaved individual. It’s a shame that, in their flagrant advocacy of discriminatory policies, people like Mona Charen fail to consider people like Ted Bundy and other dangerous people whose behavior is outwardly normal.

  16. Looks like it’s time to re-read the minority report, the cuckoo’s nest, etc…

  17. How about not locking up the nutbars but just making it harder for them to get their hands on gns and amo?

    We already do this, you know. Oh, you mean harder. Standards? Due process?

    Reason to believe that a nutbar bent on mass murder will care?

    1. But, but, but laws are magic!

    2. I think it would actually be a little difficult for full on crazies to make the black market connections in order to illegally buy a gun. You don’t have to be on the up and up to be leery of handing a gun to someone with no grip on reality. That’s more of the type of think a parent in denial would do. It obviously doesn’t stop all nutbars from getting guns but it does probably help. I don’t think it’s unjust to revoke gun rights for the very few people(Jared may not even be included) who fit the legal definition of insane.

      1. For a meth head you sure don’t know much about how easy it is to find “the black market”.

        As a former minor drug dealer, I can assure you that crazy people–even loners–are MORE likely to have such connections and find it easier to find them. I know WAY fewer crazy people now that I’ve gone legit.

        1. If you were a gun dealer instead, you would have learned to discriminate against people who think they are in a dream world. Being armed only protects you while handing guns to people who understand consequences and are afraid of them. A weed dealer would understandably not be as concerned with this. Underground gun dealers are scared of crazy people too. For good reason.

  18. I have always been for laxer commitment rules!

  19. Polls show that most Americans believe that an invisible man lives in the sky and that President Kennedy died as a result of a conspiracy even though both of those ideas are clearly false.I don’t think millions of people can be locked up just because of their crazy beliefs.

    1. You know who else sent people to insane asylums before sending them to gulags for having crazy .. er .. different beliefs?

  20. Who says it’s an invisible MAN?

    1. The invisible man did.

  21. Imprisonment of all who may pose a threat to innocents makes perfect sense.

    By the way, anyone who disagrees with me is completely insane.

  22. One could also say that opponents of detaining the obviously insane aren’t considering the well-being of the obviously insane. Yes, they are “innocent” of committing a crime, but is it really best to let them remain lose and untreated?

    Of course, there are dangers to liberty here. Involuntary commitment was abused in generations past, but I think the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

  23. Anybody suggesting forced commitment should first be forced to participate in a “Rosenhan Experiment”.
    TL/DR: Once in you can’t get out and they can’t even tell who to let in.

  24. Um, has anybody done an analysis of the difference in rates of violence compared with relative strengths/weaknesses of state commitment laws? These do vary a bit from state to state. If stronger commitment laws do lead to less violence among the mentally ill, then this would be actual proof that more commitment would work. If there is no difference, or indeed weaker commitment laws lead to LESS violence, then that would be in support of not changing anything, at least in regards to commitment.

    Any evidence?

    1. Afraid that any analysis of the data will be rejected in the same way that data on gun policy, the death penalty, etc., is rejected by anyone whose pre-conceived notions it does not support.

  25. How many more laws do we need before we understand that they are threatening our rights-based hyperindividualism?

  26. Loughner type crimes grab the national attention, but are quite rare. Very few whackos will do what he did; also, most murders are committed by non-whackos.

    One classmate of his blogged for several weeks that she was sitting next to the door, as she was afraid of his doing a mass shooting.

    Maybe if the F.B.I. were not so busy setting up that hapless Muslim teen up in Oregon, they could have noticed this guy.

    1. I was generally a weird kid too and although I was never actually violent and I never was kicked out of a community college class, sometimes kids did joke that I would “shoot up the place” simply because I was a strange white kid who didn’t seem to fit in, and I had strange opinions that I was passionate about. I smoke weed constantly, well, whenever I can, at least everyday. I also believe in a return to a metallic currency system, and I am for the dissolution of the fed.

      Do you want to have me committed?

  27. My mother was an LPN in a state mental hospital during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the stories she used to tell gave me literal nightmares. Some of those inmates were indeed “insane” — as in, not connected to reality, utterly incapable of caring for themselves, and when the mental hospitals were closed in the 1970s, those folks almost certainly went on to become homeless statistics in the 1980s.

    But there were a lot of people who weren’t crazy, just eccentric. Or poor, or unpopular, or an irritant to authorities. I’ve often speculated that, had I been born 30 or 40 years earlier, I might well have been incarcerated in such a hellhole; I’ve lost count of how many thousands of times I heard things like “A pretty girl like you doesn’t want to get married and be a mommy? Oh, sweetie, that’s not normal.”

    A lot of people forget the drive the shut down the hospitals wasn’t fueled exclusively by fiscal conservatives hoping to save tax money, but also by people worried about the numerous human rights abuses that went on in those places. And given modern attitudes that claim “ordinary childhood behavior” is actually a sign of mental illness — Christ on a stick, bring back involuntary commitment and every teen caught with aspirin at school will be incarcerated as a hopeless drug addict, every kid who talks back to a teacher locked up for “oppositional defiant disorder,” every kid who tries booze before age 21 branded a hopeless alcoholic.

    1. I’ve often speculated that, had I been born 30 or 40 years earlier, I might well have been incarcerated in such a hellhole;

      If only…

  28. Mr. Sullum,

    Here is an even simpler reason: The Fifth Amendment. “No person shall…be denied life, liberty or property, without due process of the law.” If we are to follow this policy, simply locking up people who are socially awkward or even demonstrably strange would, assuming we followed the Fifth Amendment which some commentators seem willing to ignore, flood the courts on cases of dubious merits in search of that one or two people who are truly dangerous.

  29. I love the discourse that goes on in the comment sections of


  30. For the love of Aqua Buddha, stop posting that freaky mugshot.

  31. Another way to look at this kind of problem is to see it as a set of tradeoffs, rather than a situation with a clear, crisp solution.

    On the one hand, making involuntary commitment easier increases the risk of taking away the freedom of people unnecessarily, even opening opportunities for people to game the system to get rid of annoying relatives, enemies, rivals. In the old days, remember, that was the complaint: Too many harmless people locked up. Books, plays, and movies with this theme were common at one time: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Harvey with his six-foot imaginary rabbit, The Curious Savage, and even Miracle on 34th Street.

    So we changed the rules, and now it’s much harder to commit someone involuntarily. This really means that the tradeoffs lie in the direction of not locking up someone who eventually becomes dangerous, and thus innocent people losing their lives — sometimes just the crazy person, who commits suicide when he could have been helped.

    As we move the slider back and forth, we trade security for society on the one hand and concern for the individual on the other. If we choose to change the laws to make involuntary commitment easier, we have to recognize that the tradeoff is that we will have people who will be committed who shouldn’t be; it’s inevitable. And if we don’t change the laws, we will have people die at the hands of insane people; that, too, is inevitable.

    Of course, admitting to tradeoffs is not the way to win in politics or in public forums, to we tend to absolutism: Our way is best, not simply better, it is without negative tradeoffs or costs, and the other side’s ideas are uniformly bad, period. We win arguments that way; we don’t get closer to any useful truths.

  32. i have personally written dozens of invol affidavits, allowing medical personnel to take people who appear to be a danger to self or others (based on essentially a probable cause standard) to a hospital for an eval by MHP’s.

    “batshit crazy” , which is as far as i can tell all that loughner portrayed is NOT enough to force somebody into seeing an MHP.

    it seems many people (progressives mostly) want to have their cake and eat it too. they pay lip service to civil rights, but think the system “failed” by nobody being able to FORCE loughner into treatment based on his rambling craziness.

    one hole in my state’s system is that IF a person is invol’d and does not get a 72 hr hold (which the vast majority don’t) and hearing, there is a (noncriminal) police report, but there will be no notification of licensing authorities in regards to CCW etc.

    i think it would be reasonable that given an invol (which again means evidence of danger to self or others not merely batshit crazy), that a person could be denied a CCW and/or allowance to carry PENDING a presentation to a court that they essentially got an ‘all clear” from a MHP. maybe an affirmative burden of evidence by a preponderance would be enough.

    but again, that wouldn’t affect a case like loughner’s.

    what the progressives etc. propose would draw tons of mentally ill into having their rights diminished. the vast majority of mentally ill are NOT dangerous, and not prone to violence.

    a schizophrenic, for instance, who IS violent can be especially dangerous, but schizophrenia in and of itself says nothing about violent tendencies.

  33. “a delusional loss of contact with reality”

    That is descriptive of the majority in the White House and Congress. But of course their rules do not apply to themselves.

  34. Talk about conspiracies:


    Father of doctor treating Gabrielle Giffords gives money to Tea Party candidates, and therefore is responsible for Giffords’ injuries.

    Fucking pathetic.

  35. This plan has no merit

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